The roles of the House of Commons





What roles does the House of Commons fulfill in constitutional terms ?
It is suggested that the House of Commons has four main functions, as illustrated by the following table:
 

Political 
forum

ROLES OF
THE

Legislation

HOUSE OF COMMONS

Scrutiny of 
Policies and Administration

Specific 
Redress


1. PRIME POLITICAL FORUM

The most general and pervasive function is that the House of Commons provides the prime political forum in the country. In other words, it amounts to a convenient (and usually non-violent) setting for the exchange of views between Government and opposition.

This idea of a political forum in theory is taken further in reality in that following a General Election, the choice of Government is a matter for the Commons in the senses that:

- the leader of the party with the greatest number of MPs (not necessarily the greatest number of votes) is expected to become Prime Minister

- and that Prime Minister then chooses the political heads of the Government (the Cabinet and Ministers) from existing Commons Members of Parliament (though there are also about 25 out of about 120 chosen from the House of Lords).

This picture of the Commons as a direct broker of Governments is probably exaggerated. The choice is now largely determined by the Electorate, so that the Government is really settled on election night and not a week or so later when Parliament actually assembles - unless perhaps no party wins an overall majority. The conflicting interpretations being presented here have been categorised as two different models

- the Westminster model - power flows from the electorate to Parliament which chooses and controls the executive;

- or the Whitehall model - the electorate chooses the Government and Parliament is there to confirm that choice as an electoral college and then to serve Government and ensure it works effectively in accordance with its mandate. The role of MPs is on this view to facilitate and improve Government programme by exploring and testing them but ultimately approving them. In short, Parliament is a critical rather than governmental body.

This prime role is bolstered by the televising of Parliamentary proceedings which began in November 1989. However, television coverage is rather stunted and tends to be confined to short exerpts from Question Time. Major debates are, however, often broadcast by radio. See: House of Commons Factsheet on Broadcasting Proceedings.


2. LEGISLATION

Next, following the political settlement brought about by the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 (see: House of Commons Factsheet on The Glorious Revolution and Article 2 of the Bill of Rights 1689), Parliament is now virtually the only source of legislation. The main, but very limited, exception is legislation under the prerogative eg in regard to civil servants at GCHQ (see: Council of Civil Sevice Unions v Minister for the Civil Service [1985] A.C. 374. This power to legislate is especially important in so far as Article 4 goes on to provide that Acts of Parliament alone (and not the prerogative as recognised in earlier common law cases) can authorise the levying of taxes. Together, these Articles are vital in ensuring that the executive accounts to Parliament, and both give Parliament some leverage over the Government. The Government constantly needs grants of taxation (the annual budget is about £250billion). Because of the effect of the Parliament Acts 1911-49 and convention, the House of Common is of far greater importance in these matters than the House of Lords.

But, as with the first function, one can exaggerate the power of Parliament. In reality, Parliament largely reacts to legislation initiated by the Government. It does not initiate its own legislative programme reflecting its own policies, and few Acts are passed which are not sponsored (ie put forward) by Government Ministers. As before, our constitution is said to enshrine the idea of Parliamentary Government. This does not mean that Parliament governs but that the Government must work through Parliament.


3. SCRUTINY OF POLICIES AND ADMINISTRATION

The Commons next has the task of scrutinising the Government's policies and administration of its policies. Again note that Parliament has few policies of its own and certainly no coherent overall programme which rivals that of the Government - its functions are mainly to examine and react to the Government's policies and actions. The alternative to the Government is the Official Opposition not Parliament per se.

This point is well made by John Stuart Mill

in his book, Considerations on Representative Government (1861) ch.5:
 
 

"Instead of the function of governing, for which is radically unfit, the proper office of a representative assembly is to watch and control the government ..."
 

Parliament is expected to sustain, scrutinise and influence rather than block Government. After all, most MPs are elected on the basis that they support the Government's policies. Parliament thus provides legitimation for Government in the sense that its approval can be seen as representing the assent of the electorate.

NOTE: The UK has a representative democracy (sometimes called Schumpeterian, after Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1944) rather than a participatory democracy. MPs once elected are not then the direct agents or cyphers of the electorate but are allowed a wide discretion to represent their electorate as they think fit. The electorate has no further say, whether by referendum or otherwise, but merely endorses at election time one candidate or another. This position has been changed to some extent by an increase in party activism in Labour Party and more generally by a post-1945 growth in pressure groups.


4. SPECIFIC REDRESS

The final task of the Commons is the redress of specific grievances. All MPs, even the Prime Minster, are elected by a specific locality (constituency) in which they are the sole representative and link with Parliament. It follows that they are seen as having constituency interests and responsibilities. In other words, they ask questions or raise matters in debate concerning the problems of their area and constituents. This work is often done informally and behind the scenes by meetings in the constituency and by letters to, and discussion with, Ministers or civil servants. It has been estimated that in 1986, MPs received 6 million letters - 3m from constituents, 90% of which concerned individual personal matters - council housing, welfare benefits and so on. The input is around 40,000 letters per year and the output around 30,000, so this work is an important part of the work-load as well as providing an important source of information. Its political impact may be limited but locally significant. The MP may meet 10% of constituents, and though it has been reckoned that the best efforts are worth only about 1500 votes, this number could affect the result in about 20 constituencies.

See: Rawlings, R. "The MP's complaints service" (1990) 53 Modern Law Review 22, 147

A report by the Fabian Society (Power, G., Representatives of the People (1998)) suggests that there are far too many MPs and that they engage in far too much constituency work which they are ill-equipped to deal with. It recommends that the number of MPs be reduced by 200 and that a parliamentary official be appointed to look into individual grievances.

Another aspect of the redress of grievances is Private legislation i.e. legislation sponsored by private individuals or companies. This is now relatively rare,though legislation by private companies does continue eg British Railways Act 1968. Along similar lines is Local legislation, i.e. legislation sponsored by local authorities and applying only to their own area eg West Yorkshire Act 1980.

The Commons finally fulfills this role by receiving public petitions which are then sent to the relevant Minister who is expected to print a reply or they may even be debated if urgent (see Standing Orders 132-136). The petition is an increasingly popular way of raising the political profile of an issue. It is also a way of allowing a small degree of participation by the electorate in the business of Parliament.

See:

Select Committee on Procedure, Public Petitions (1991-2 H.C. 286).

House of Commons Factsheet on Public Petitions in the House of Commons


Notes

1. House of Commons Rules

The framework of rules under which the House of Commons operates arises from different sources, especially the laws and customs of Parliament in form of Standing Orders (see 1994-95 H.C.1), rulings by Committees and the Speaker (see: House of Commons Factsheet on The Speaker) and accepted practices. Standing Orders are referred to as "SO" in these pages.
 
 

2. Meetings of Parliament

Note the following terminology:

Adjournment - sittings of Parliament are adjourned both daily and for longer periods (e.g. summer recess from about July to early November) on the government's initiative. The Government announced in May 1997 that summer recesses would be shorter than in the recent past so as to reduce the working hours of the Commons when in session (so as to avoid in particular late night sessions which last after 10 p.m. and so as to reduce work on a Friday when M.P.s wish to return to their constituencies - and their families or perhaps even their mistresses!). The House is unusual compared to similar legislatures in terms of the number of hours it sits per year but not the number of days, suggesting that the work is too concentrated at present.

Prorogation - terminates a session of Parliament (which usually lasts from October to October) and causes all outstanding public bills to lapse. But note that the House of Commons Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons in a report on the "Carry-over of Public Bills (1997-98 HC 543) has now suggested that some Bills should be carried over from one session to the next - but only uncontroversial bills where there is cross-party agreement for this course of action.

Dissolution - Parliament may be dissolved on the advice of the Prime Minister every five years or sooner, and dissolution will be followed by a General Election.

See:

Blackburn, R., "Prorogation or adjournment before a dissolution of Parliament" [1987] Public Law 533

Blackburn, R, The Meeting of Parliament (Dartmouth, 1990)

House of Commons Factsheet on Sittings of the House
 
 

3. The workings of the House of Commons

The working of the House of Commons depends to a remarkable degree on the existence of effective political parties. Details of the main parties (and many fringe parties as well) may be found on the world wide web. See especially:
 
 

Conservative Party
 

Labour Party
 

Liberal Democrats

Or see the overview of the political party system in the Britannia Internet Magazine.
 
 

4. For further reading on these matters, see:

Harlow, C. (ed.), Public Law and Politics (Sweet and Maxwell, 1986), Ch.7

Hartley, T.C. & Griffith, J.A.G., Government and Law (2nd ed, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1980 ) pp. 196-204

Hansard Society, The Challenge for Parliament: Making Parliament Accountable (London, 2001)

Jones, B., Politics UK (4th ed., Pearson, London, 2000) chap.17

Norton, P., Legislatures (OUP, 1990)

Page, A.C., "M.P.s and the redress of grievances" [1985] Public Law 1



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I can be contacted via email at law6cw@leeds.ac.uk
©Clive Walker
Last updated, 18 November 2001